Saturday, April 26, 2014

Classic crime fiction

Cold in July 

By Joe R. Lansdale


Publisher: Tachyon Publications

Pub. Date: May 27, 2014 (reprint)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Note: I first wrote this review in 2009 when I first started reviewing books at Goodreads. It was a brief review simply for the fact I read the novel in the late 90s and the details were not as vivid at the time. Now, thanks to the release of the film in 2014 and the re-release of Cold in July by Tachyon Publications, I was encouraged to read it again. The first part of this review are my first thoughts in 2010 followed by my new assessment.

This hard-nosed thriller by Joe R. Lansdale is easy to dismiss as a pulp fiction suspense novel and nothing more. Yet the author is actually writing a haunting character study about fatherhood and all the problems it entail. This is the genius of Lansdale. He writes thrillers that can be read for pure entertainment yet at the end you are thinking twice about what you read and what it means. And, as usual, he never pulls punches. While not as riveting as the Hap and Leonard novels, Cold in July is still very memorable. (written in 2009)


With the movie Cold in July coming out in May of 2014, I decided to reread this suspense novel written by Joe R. Lansdale. It didn't hurt my decision when Tachyon Publications, through Netgalley, offered me a review copy as their release of the book coincides with the release of the film. It's been over 15 years since I read it and my original review (above) for Goodreads was on spot but without much detail. On the second read, I must say it was as good as I remembered and better. But I may have been flippant when I referred to it as pulp fiction. Cold in July is certainly within the tradition of pulp mysteries and, more precisely, crime fiction. It is also firmly in Lansdale's typical East Texas setting full of blue collar families and characters from the more dubious sides of life. Yet Lansdale has hit a literary note in this novel as he uses the plot and themes to explore father-son relationships. In that way, this novel may be one of his most subtle and maybe even more personal.

Considering Lansdale's novels are full of tough and eccentric characters, Richard Dane is fairly mundane. He lives with his wife and son in a small Texas town and owns a picture framing shop. One night he hears an intrusion into his home and ends up shooting the burglar in self defense. He is uncomfortable about the notoriety he receives and feels guilty despite the fact it was self defense. Soon Russel, the father of the man he killed, has just got out of prison only to find his boy is dead. He places himself into Richard's life in the most sinister way. "A life for a life" as he puts it.

So now we have a typical story about a man placed in a dangerous situation and protecting his family. But Lansdale is never typical. As the story developed, Richard discovers something have makes him and Russel uncomfortable allies. It's a beautiful if suspenseful buildup to this point and Lansdale makes it work. One of those reasons is that Russel is old enough to be Richard's father and Richard's actual father killed himself when he was young. That made sound strange saying that there exist emotional connections between Richard and the man who wants to kill his family but it's that sort of thing that makes this such a emotionally satisfying book. The loss of a son. The loss of a father. The fear of losing youe child in death or sometimes in other ways than death. These are the themes that drive this excellent story. And no one tells a story better than Lansdale.

Lansdale's grit and wits is evident throughout. Halfway through we meet a private investigator that is one of the more colorful characters the author has created and, of course, has some of the best lines. Richard's wife lends a different kind of protective spirit to the book. She in realistic and provides a bit of grounding to Richard's odd quest which she fears will destroy the family. It's that quest that becomes the only weak, if minor, link in this novel. Even with Russel's background, it is hard to accept he would make the decision he does and even harder that Richard would go along with it. Yet Lansdale have built up the delicate rapport each has with the other so well that it does not become an insurmountable leap and certainly does not slow down this exquisite thriller.

So I have to say I enjoyed this book more on the second read and, maybe because of my own older age, felt closer for the relationship and the emotions of these men. I originally gave this book four stars but now I would increase it to five. It's a crime fiction classic.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A harrowing nautical thriller

Close Reach

By Jonathan Moore

Publisher: Hydra (Random House LLC)

 Pub. Date: May 6, 2014

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Close Reach by Jonathan Moore is what might be called a mini-surprise. It's a brief 200 pages that start out as a chase thriller staged over the Antarctic seas. I expected to be entertained but I didn't expect such a visceral edge-of--the-seat roller coaster ride. Kelly Pratihari-Reid and her husband are in their hi-tech yacht off the Antarctic coast south of Chile. Kelly receives a distress call from a terrified British woman. "They're Coming!". Who "They" are is not yet known but in an isolated area where satellite radios and all other communication devices are being jammed, they don't want to know. A thrilling chase begins, At first I was a little disoriented with the sea faring terms and maneuvers. I'm a certified land hugger. Yet that was not enough to thwart the excitement of the chase in which the author piles on enough scare and surprises that you are rethinking that idea of taking a relaxing ocean cruise.  Soon the story becomes a tale of harrowing survival on and off the sea. The author creates a group of unmerciful sociopathic villains with a terrifying motive and our luckless couple soon find out that this is not just a case of piracy. In the second half, there are some very brutal scenes that may scare off the more squeamish yet nothing in this book could be called gratuitous. It is brutal but necessary to elicit the overall sense of terror and urgency. Frankly, if I was a film maker I would be banging on the author's door demanding the rights to this very visual and visceral tale of adventure. This is a nautical adventure tale that will give you a sleepless night or two.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A horror tale with a Navajo setting

Ancient Enemy

By Michael McBride


Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date:  April 22, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ancient Enemy uses a historical mystery that have always fascinated me: The disappearance of the Anasazi Indians in the American Southwest. This mystery has been used before, most notably in The Haunted Mesa by Louis L'Amour. Yet very rarely did the ideas pan out in novels. Michael McBride uses the mystery of the Anasazi to set up his novel Ancient Enemy and ends up with a scary and tense horror tale full of Native-American mythology, Navajo traditions and one scary monster.

Sani Natonaba is a young Navajo-Ute man who takes care of his ailing grand-father and his alcoholic mother at his isolated ranch. He can barely eke out a living on their Navajo farmland. His sheep are being slaughtered by a creature or creatures that can go undetected by Sani's normal hunting skills. His grand-father may know what they are but due to his illness, Sani cannot communicate with him, at least not easily. What entails is a harrowing search and journey that puts Sani in touch with not only ancient mythology but with his own family's secret and tragic past.

This is a well written novel that is not only a literary horror story and a impressive use of history and legend but is also a skilled character study of a boy that is isolated from others and raised with deep conflicts in his tribal beliefs. It is no coincidence that the author made him half Navajo and half Ute. Those two tribes have a violent history of conflict with each other and any boy with that lineage would have to deal with issues of alienation and displacement. Sani is not only placed in a life or death struggle for him and his family but also in a test of his own identity. It cannot be stressed enough how well McBride sets up Sani's feeling of aloneness. He cannot even communicate with his own family as his grand-father cannot speak and his mother is so deep in her alcoholism that she might as well not be able to speak. Ancient Enemy is narrated in first-person and the book has no dialog to speak of. So we are confronted with only Sani's viewpoint and observations. This makes the reader feel strongly for him and adds to the sense of aloneness.

But of course it is good to have an effective monster when writing a horror tale. McBride's creature is sufficiently terrifying and the discovery of the creature's history helps that sense of terror. Especially effective is Sani's journey into Lovecraftian styled caves and corridors as he investigates what is killing his herds and threatening his family. Yet I keep coming back to the character of Sani. This is the main strength of this novel and what makes this novel rise among many other books like it. Recommended.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A not so furious thriller

The Furies

By Mark Alpert


Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books 

Pub. Date: April 22, 2014

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

The Furies first starts out like it may be supernatural but quickly corrects the reader's assumption and reveals itself to be science fiction. It reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's famous adage that says "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Yet to call it science fiction may be a stretch too. After all the author Mark Alpert makes it clear on the cover that this is primarily a thriller and that is how it should be read.

That's a good thing because it isn't a very good science fiction novel. As a thriller, it is enjoyable and holds it own. John Rogers is a troubled young man who meets Ariel in a "chance" encounter and hopefully a one night stand for our usually luckless hero. Of course, it doesn't work out that way and soon guns are blazing and John inexplicably is following Ariel into almost sure death instead of running for his life which any sane man would do, raging hormones or not. We find that Ariel isn't who she appears to be but is a member of a long standing and mysterious group who have plenty of secrets of their own. In fact, the best thing about this novel is how the author describes and builds Ariel's community and the secrets it holds. The Furies have all the ingredients of an exciting thriller and, aside from the creation of an interesting "cult", some nice bio-technical voodoo for the sci-fi freaks. But it never really gels together and eventually gets overrun by the predictable trappings of a mainstream thriller. Part of the problem is that I found the dialogue rather stilted and on the melodramatic side. But overall, Alpert's cast of characters just never came to life for me. They felt pat and pasted into unbelievable situations and actions. Most importantly, I never quite understood John's instant devotion to Ariel except that it must of been one hell of a one night stand. The best I can say for The Furies is that it is enjoyable in a generic thriller way and it show some promise for its intriguing scenario. However I doubt that it will stand out in my mind a few hours after I post this review.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cthulhu Gang takes center stage

Lovecraft's Monsters

Edited by Ellen Datlow


Publisher: Tachyon Publications 

Pub. Date: April 15, 2014

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Collections of short fiction based on the Cthulhu Mythos never get old but they can be predictable. Editor Ellen Datlow attempts to spice up the idea by featuring stories based on the monsters of H. P. Lovecraft's weird and twisted mind. Even the ardent Lovecraft fan may go mad trying to place some of the creatures, so Datlow added a neat Monster Index to keep you up on the creepies you will meet. The fiction itself tends to be uneven but there are enough gems to keep you reading. Neil Gaiman's "Only the End of the World Again" starts the collection and has the achievement of shining above most of the stories. It's hard to not like a story that brings Larry Talbot and Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos together. If you don't know who Larry Talbot is, you are not much of a horror fan. Another good mash-up, "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley, brings Mary Shelly and Lovecraft together with the hollow world theory. I haven't seen one of Howard Waldrop's speculative mini-masterpieces for ages. It isn't "The Ugly Chickens" but it is still really entertaining. The third "don't miss" story is by the always dependable Joe R. Lansdale who gives "The Bleeding Shadows" a bluesy East Texas drawl. Steve Rasnic Tem's "Waiting at the Crossroads Motel" qualifies as one of the creepiest of the bunch. The rest range from very good to passable but none are out of place in this Lovecraft Tribute. A strong three and a half stars.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A study of bigotry and extremism

In the Course of Human Events

By Mike Harvkey

Publisher: Soft Skull Press

Pub. Date: April 15th, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In The Course of Human Events is more of a character study than a novel that follows a steady plot. Not that it doesn't have a linear plot, it has a very good one. It follows the life of Clyde Twitty who has been engulfed by the ass end of the Great Recession. He lost his job. one that wasn't very promising to begin with, and sees no real future for himself. He falls under the influence of a charismatic martial art expert who strives on conspiracy theories and  the kind of racial hatred that might attract someone like Clyde who feels he is forgotten and powerful in modern society. He becomes attracted to the ideas of Jay, which is egged on by more than a little interest in Jay's strong minded teen daughter Tina. Clyde becomes so immersed in Jay's true believer of a family that he is willing to endure abuse, give up his own family, and perhaps even commit himself to act of violence and racial hatred himself.

It is this intimate look at Clyde and how he becomes so entrenched in what most of us would call a self-destructive life style that makes this book so interesting. I would like to say Clyde is a far-fetched fictional set-up but I've seen too many young men and women dragged into this type of bigotry and extremism to know Mike Harvkey's terrifying and fascinatingly depressive novel is not that far from reality. Clyde's soon-to-be mentor is also a grim but realistic description of a man who own beliefs are destructive to himself and all who follows him. I enjoyed this novel as a study in extremism and a primer on how a bright but alienated young man can easily be led into fanaticism and bigotry.

What I really like about this novel though is how Clyde comes to life  in the author's capable hands. Even while becoming brain-washed into Jay's cultish family, Clyde has connections with the outside world that could help him gain balance: His old school buddy Troy, his uncle, a would be girl friend, and most importantly, a Mexican co-worker who, with all his faults, give Clyde questions about his assumptions of others who are not like him. While I find the ideas that Clyde is embracing repugnant, Clyde himself remains sympathetic. We want to think Clyde can escape Jay's control. Yet Clyde is falling deep into the socio-political rabbit hole that Jay has led him to and the results are what makes this book a tense page-turner. For those who like their reads realistic and not afraid of down-beat themes, I would give this a high recommendation.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What did you say was in those tacos?

 Muerte Con Carne

By Shane McKenzie


Publisher: Deadite Press 

Pub. Date: February 1, 2013)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If I'm going to review Muerte con Carne by horror writer Shane McKenzie, I'm going to have to start by offering some major disclaimers...

1) I am currently a Kickstarter backer for Luchagore Production's El Gigante , a short film based on the first chapter of Muerte con Carne.

2) I've always had a soft spot for Luchador horror movies, those Mexican wrestlers films which usually had wrestlers in masks, ever since I first saw the first Sampson (El Santo) movies and Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Mummy back when I was a kid. You could say that it is one of my many guilty pleasures. So any book that features a masked wrestler is certainly going to get my attention.

3. How can you not like a writer who tries to look all Ernest Hemingway macho while wearing a pink princess back pack.?

But even with all those disclaimers, I can honestly state that Muerte con Carne is a edge-of-your-seat riot, steeped in the literary tradition of Jack Ketchum's Off Season, drenched in the scares and gore of movie influences like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and permeated with the odors of human flesh tacos. The novel is set on the border of the United States and Mexico. A family is regularly kidnapping people who are attempting to come into the United States illegally and, when they are taken to the abductors' home, are pitted against a huge wrestler named El Gigante who mangles and slaughters them. The corpses are then cut up and eaten by the family who then takes the left-overs and uses them in tacos which are sold on the street. Yum! Tastes just like chicken! In the first chapter we are introduced to this family who are the most grotesque bunch of monsters since the Westboro Baptist Church. At least the WBC aren't far as we know.

Enter Felix and Marta who have arrived in a small border town to make a documentary of the border patrol's abuse of people crossing the border. Also arriving to this reading, is my only real issue with the book. Felix is a bit of a wimp and emotionally abused by his girlfriend while Marta is a bit borderline...and I'm not talking about her documentary. Frankly, she's that word my mother said I should never call women and it is hard to understand what Felix sees in her despite a bit of back story existing to explain her actions. She also makes really stupid choices which are the horror movie equivalent of going into a haunted house and splitting up. Yet I liked Felix and it is to the author's credit that he manages to elicit enough understanding for both protagonists to allow the reader to care for them. On the other hand, caring for any one character in a mega-gore fest like this can be a slippery bowl of menudos.

Yet this book is mainly about action and horror. It works mostly because the author created a very scary and very menacing set of villains. From the wrestler to the matriarch to a very weird and disgusting kid, these are the type of characters that both revolt and fascinate. There's some nice build-up as Felix meets a few of them early on but it really takes off when we get to see the monsters up close and personal. The novel is an excellent example of horror and pulp fiction taken to its highest, if still visceral, levels.

There is one other thing that impress me even if it was a bit understated. Early one, McKenzie sets up the environment of the border town and that of the plight of undocumented entries into the US. This issue is nicely handled by the author and shows a certain level of concern and caring that is especially placed in focus by our normally selfish Marta. There's a reason for this and it adds another dimension to this novel. I understand that Shane McKenzie will be writing at least one sequel and I am hoping he adds on to this aspect of this story.

Now for the inevitable warning: Those who regularly read my reviews know that no tonly do I have eclectic tastes but I also tend to lean toward the extreme often. These is one of those extremes to the max. If you are at all squeamish or put off by gore, violence, and/or cannibalism you will want to avoid this book. However if you are the kind of person who eats Habanero peppers by the handful and complain they are not spicy enough, you will probably love this book. You get my drift?

Monday, April 7, 2014

When words attack!

The Word Exchange

By Alena Graedon


Publisher: Doubleday

Pub. Date: April 8th, 2014

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

The Word Exchange is about a future in which the printed media is practically obsolete. Everyone communicates by a device called a meme, which is not really explained until about a third of the way through the book. In this world, people was being affected by something called a "word flu" in which the inflicted loses the meaning of words, automatically substituting nonsense words. The incubation time needed for this flu to arrive seems be the duration of 50% of the book. Eventually this virus leads to death and threatens chaos. The one man who may know the answer has disappeared, leaving his daughter Anana aka Ana, aka Alice (beware of gratuitous Alice in Wonderland references) to seek him out and figure out what is really going on. In between we get some melodrama, some endless moping, a few lengthy discourses on Hegel, some suspenseful moments in linguistic philosophy in which I expected a cameo appearance by Wittgenstein but was sorely disappointed, and some unbelievable conspiracies eventually leading to a letdown of a climax. The end.

As you can surmise, I was not impressed. In fact, "Not impressed" may be a semantic understatement all of its own. I must admit the premise was promising. However, this is one of those science fiction novels where the speculative themes appear to be a gimmick for literary pretentiousness. While author Alena Graedon, in her debut novel, has an impressive talent for singular prose, she seems to be lacking in the plot structuring department. Loosely structured comes to mind as well as sloppy. There is more than one narrative as we struggle with the tale and they seem to trip over each other as the tale progresses. The narrative becomes tedious to follow to the point that I was starting to skim at the 70 percent mark of this overlong novel anxious to just finish it up...never a good sign. If any book needed an editor with a red pen and a pair of scissors, this is the book. There's a talented writer lurking in Ms. Graedon but she doesn't show up for this literary sci-fi muddle. Two very generous stars.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Why didn't I think of this when I was an intern?

The Intern's Handbook

By Shane Kuhn


Publisher: Simon & Schuster 

Pub. Date: April 8, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


John Lagos is an assassin. He has been an assassin since he was 12 years old. He is 25 and ready to retire although he is a bit suspicious on what "retire" means in his business and especially to his boss. He works for a mysterious company that specializes in high end assassinations usually putting the hit man into an intern's position at the company where their high profile victims reside. Why interns, you ask? As John Lagos' boss, Bob, states...
"Interns are invisible. You can tell an executive your name a hundred times and that executive will never remember it because they have no respect for someone at the bottom of the barrel, working for free. The rapport they have with their private urinal far exceeds the rapport they will ever have with you."

All this is pretty cynical and John is a cynical man. Having your mother die before he was born, being raised in abusive foster care families and being cared for by a sociopath slightly colors your view on life. John Lagos places that cynicism up front in his manual for future hit men but, being the sociopath he is, he can't help talking about our delight.

Shane Kuhn's The Intern's Handbook starts out a little normal for a thriller like this. John is trying to get out of the business, he gets one last hit with no clear target, shit hits the fan, and there's a woman involved ready to make life complicated. Sounds like some movies you seen? That's not surprising considering the author is a veteran of the film business. Yet there is enough original twists and turns in this book to make us realize that Kuhn is on to something original. John Lagos may not be the guy you want to have a beer with but there is something sad and redeemable about him, so he is easy to root for despite his profession. His evolution from professional sociopath to ??? is quite believable, thanks to a some nice back story involving his parents. (I'm predicting Bradley Cooper for the main role assuming there ever is a movie) I must admit I felt the intern hook was a little farfetched at first but the author builds us into the idea well and pretty soon I am a believer. There is nice structuring and good overall characterization throughout. (While I'm fantasizing, how about Terry O'Quinn (John Locke from Lost for Bob?). As you can tell from my asides, this book does read like a fast moving thriller and would make for a nifty movie. But as a novel, it may rank as one of 2014's first top notch summer reads. If you like good thrillers that you can immerse yourself in, then The Intern's Handbook comes highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

An important crime fiction collection by an important new writer

Phone Call from Hell and Other Tales of the Damned

By Jonathan Woods

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is a given that when a person makes a declaration about something, Life, the internet and everything will smack you upside the head. This happened to me when in a recent review of Jan Burke's short story collection Apprehended, I remarked that the mystery/ suspense short story is a critically endangered species. Not soon after I wrote that, I received a index from someone that listed all the markets for mystery short fiction. Most of them were internet or very indie magazines, but the case was made. There is still a demand for mystery short fiction. Then a friend clued me to to Jeff Strand's darkly funny Stalking You Now to which I gave a nice review to. As if I wasn't chastised enough, New Pulp Press, a small but hearty bastion of literary crime noir books, sent me a copy of Phone Call from Hell and Other Tales of the Damned by Jonathon Woods. OK, I get the message. Mystery and crime short fiction is doing fine...but you have to know where to look.

If you are looking for short thrillers, you can't do better than Jonathan Woods' new collection of literary crime noir. It isn't really mystery. I don't think there is a real whodunnit in the stack of 17 short stories. But these are rough and gritty pieces of crime noir that equal anything coming from Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, or any other major writer in the genre. Woods even gives the contemporary crime noir writers like Joe R. Lansdale and Charlie Huston a run for their money although his style is a little more hard-nosed and more retro partly because he seems to like settings and exotic eras like corrupt tropical countries and sleazy LA underbelly environments. I noticed that the author christens his works as "Southern Noir" on his website but I didn't see anything exclusively southern about them although there is definitely a strong sense of influence from writers like Flannery O'Connor and David Grubb. The stories are the kind that will have readers swooning over Chandleresque lines like "A wave of lust oozed over me like the melted cheese from a perfect enchilada," or"She was as drinkable as a Black Russian on a slow night."While many of his stories have little twists at the end they are usually the kind of intelligently subtle kind that makes the reader thinks, "I better read that again". And others are more like character studies that examine a certain type of loser mindset. I say 'Loser" not because these people are unlikeable although they often are . It just that they are people who you wouldn't want to be or, at the very least, wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

It would be impossible to cover all 17 tales so here's a few that will give a inkling of the range and quality in this collection. The opening tale, "The Handgun's Story" is a short and sweet perspective of murder by the gun's perspective. It's a clever answer to "Guns don't kill people, People kill people". Perhaps those people had a little help, don' t you think? "Writer's Block" is one of those character studies involving Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene dealing with the title problem. As far as pure reading enjoyment, this is one of my favorite. "The Old Man" is also a favorite mainly for the buildup and unexpected ending. "The Other" features escape and a manhunt that not only go beyond expectation but is maybe the best story of a superlative bunch. For some reason that I am not sure why, but "The Other Suitcase" reminds me of John Huston's film Beat the Devil, perhaps because they both seem like parodies of The Maltese Falcon. Finally the title story and "Hearing Voices" are especially interesting because they straddle the line between an implausible reality and madness, letting the reader to decide.

It's safe to say that Jonathon Woods doesn't take it easy on his readers. He expect them to work at reading these slightly crazy and dark suspense tales and he doesn't expect them to come out indifferent and detached to what they read. That is a major strength. These are the type of crime noir tales that will be read for decades and they will make sure there are readers still around for this seedy but insightful form of entertainment. OK, I relent. Suspense and mystery short fiction is alive and well as long as we have writers like Jonathan Woods stirring the pot.